I Came from Uvalde to Tell Congress Schools Need More Help to Keep Students Safe

Chohlis: There must be significant policy and funding improvements if America is to secure its schools and give children what they need to succeed.

Sharon Steinmann/Houston Chronicle/Getty Images

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I’m a life-long educator from south Texas. Late last year, I assumed the role of superintendent of Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District.

Uvalde is a vibrant rural community where people truly care for one another. We have terrific businesses, educators, parents and community members who are invested in our students’ success. But all over this beautiful community, individuals are still trying to recover and rebuild from the tragedy that struck two years ago, when a gunman attacked Robb Elementary School and killed 19 children and two teachers.

In confronting the array of challenges inherent in both rebuilding and managing a public school district, I have found it crystal clear that local initiatives require reinforcement through increased federal support to effectively serve community needs.

This week is Public Schools Week. I am proud to be in Washington, D.C., advocating to members of Congress and the administration for my school district during this important celebration of public education. I have one simple message for them, one that all school superintendents nationwide would likely agree with: Our students need more support.

Even in Uvalde, where generous private donors like Charles Butt and the Uvalde Moving Forward Foundation have stepped up to help rebuild, and organizations like Camila and Matthew McConaughey’s Greenlights Grant Initiative are helping us apply for federal school safety funding, we are still facing major shortfalls for critical needs. These include $20 million still needed to finish paying for the replacement for Robb Elementary.

While Congress and the administration should be credited for passing the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in response to the shooting in Uvalde, the funding that was dedicated to help districts address youth mental health and to prevent school violence is insufficient for the numerous challenges the country faces. 

Currently, all federal school safety dollars must be applied for through grants, so Uvalde has to compete with districts across America for funding for essential programs and personnel. In districts that can hire a $40,000 grant writer and have completed applications before, it’s no big deal. For high-needs, low-capacity districts like mine, having to complete a 30-page application that could take 100 hours or so in hopes of persuading a bureaucrat to give us funding to buy a tracking system for behavioral threat assessments or hire another school psychologist is not good policy.

There is no greater responsibility of the federal government than protecting the next generation and equipping them with the tools necessary to succeed. Right now, it is failing on both counts.

For example, the COPS School Violence Prevention Program grant provides funding for cameras, training and other common-sense measures that every school needs. Last year, more than 1,000 districts applied; only 206 grants were awarded. That means 800 educational institutions took the time and resources to apply for federal funding to protect their children but were denied support. With the threat environment as it is today, that is unacceptable. This problem can be solved with more money and better procedures that make it easier for districts of all sizes and means to apply.

Next month, the Senate will unveil the CARE for Student Mental Health Act, a measure that would make it easier for the federal government to target funding for school mental health personnel and programs to high-needs districts. It would also make it easier for districts to find out about these opportunities and apply for them, and it would designate a portion of funding for rural districts that have historically struggled to compete with large, well-resourced school systems for federal dollars.

This is a great start, but there must be significant policy and funding improvements if America hopes to secure the nation’s schools and give children the support they need to be successful. Already this year, there have been 54 school shootings. The money and heartache it takes to recover from these tragedies is far greater than the money districts needed to prevent them.

Budgets are value statements, so as Congress finalizes federal funding levels for the 2024-25 school year, I want them to know they must do better to ensure that districts — particularly those that are small and rural, like mine — receive more aid for school safety and mental health resources to ensure student success.

I urge all those who are interested in furthering school safety to encourage their lawmakers to advocate for funding and policy changes that will make sure that the next generation of doctors, farmers, lawyers, teachers and innovators has the safe, caring environment necessary to thrive in school.

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